30 March 2010

An earthy account of life in the Cooks

Following is part of a review (in PIM, July 1965) of a book titled Today is Forever by Robert Julian Dashwood (pen name Julian Hillas), an eccentric Englishman who lived in the Cook Islands from the 1930s until his death in 1970.
“Rakau” (the Maori word for wood), as he was known locally, is the only European to have been elected to the Cook Islands Legislative Assembly since self-government in 1965.
Cook Islands Library and Museum has two copies of his book, which is still a popular read after all these years.
This book was originally published in the United States under the title Today is Forever. But the English version, which is understood to have been much edited and abbreviated, is called South Seas Paradise.
South Seas Paradise begins in Sydney in 1930 where the author, with an incompatible wife in tow called Winifred, was on his beams ends, and one of more than 100,000 unemployed.
A silent movie, White Shadows in the South Seas, moved him to sell his last remaining asset, a decrepit car, and buy a steamer ticket to Tahiti. When the steamer sailed, Winifred was left behind and Dashwood decided to “remedy a lack of appreciation shown by the war office some years previously” by adopting the rank of captain. On reaching Rarotonga, he met an old friend, James Carfax-Foster (now of Fiji), whom he had last seen in Constantinople “organising a football game on the floor of a night club and insisting that the White Russian hostess take part.”
Carfax-Foster invited him to visit a plantation he was running at the far end of the island, and Dashwood wound up running the place himself instead of going to Tahiti. His self-adopted captain’s rank helped him to bluff officialdom into permitting him to stay. He subsequently made a living by trapping rats and collecting a bounty from the Administration – delivering the rats whole, and very dead, when officialdom refused to accept only their tails; and by serving in a Rarotonga store.
Then he spent an idyllic year on Rakahanga atoll in the Northern Cooks – a place where today is forever, and tomorrow never comes”, and where he wrote a novel called I know an Island, which is his only other published book.
High on the list is the author’s account of his highly profitable life as a “pox doctor’s clerk” during a visit to Tahiti in the 1930s. Another highlight is a side-splitting account of the visit to Ma’uke (where the author lived), during the war of New Zealand’s vice-regal pair, Lord and Lady Galway.
Throughout the book are many acute observations on Polynesian life as the author sees it and some brilliant pearls of Dashwoodian philosophy, which clearly explain how the author has managed to live where he has all these years and to enjoy every minute of it.

24 March 2010

The haunted adze

In June 1950 a boy working in the Avarua school vegetable plot uncovered a stone adze near an outcrop of the same stone.
This ceremonial adze has been part of the Cook Islands Library and Museum collection since 1964.

Three eminent academics of the time (Duff, Skinner and Buck) said it is one of the finest specimens ever found in Rarotonga and is similar to two others, one found in Nassau and the other in Rakahanga. Both of those are northern group atolls with no stone so the adzes must have been taken there by early voyagers from Rarotonga.
The late Percy Henderson, who was assistant master of Avarua School at that time, wrote a report about the more unusual properties of this adze.
“Adze was taken to Mr Graham’s Education Officer house for safe keeping.
From the day it was taken there – queer noises were heard every night. (Creakings, groanings and footsteps in the ceiling.)
On two occasions Mr Graham got out of bed to trace noises without avail.
As Mr Graham was to leave on a trip around the group Mrs Graham said she believed the adze was cause of trouble and asked me to take it to my room at the hotel. I did so.
I shared this room with the senior teacher of the Post Primary Department. Without his knowledge, one Sunday, I locked the adze in a cabin trunk in my wardrobe.
My room mate later had his usual afternoon nap, but after half an hour seemed to have a terrific nightmare and awoke crying out “the adze”.
When fully awake he laughed and explained he had dreamt that the adze was dragging him into my wardrobe. I then told him that the adze really was in the wardrobe (this was his first knowledge of this fact). We laughed it off as a dream.
That night at 1am I awoke to hear my room mate screaming and writhing with his body out of bed and his legs pointing to my wardrobe.
He was difficult to awake, but finally managed to sit up and said that once again he had dreamt of the adze and that its spirit was dragging him again to the wardrobe where it would kill him – this dream was most realistic. We laughed it off again.
Next night he dreamed again, this time when I awoke him he was out of bed half-way across the floor, and his first words were, “Thank God you woke me, it nearly had me that time.” Later of course we dismissed this again as a dream.
Next day unknown to my room mate I removed the adze to safe keeping in the Administration safe.
That night all was well and in the morning on awaking he said, “Well I’ve beaten it at last – never even thought of it last night.”
There were no more dreams.
Old people of the island have heard this story and explain it by saying the adze evidently was a sacred one and it had a guardian spirit appointed to it.
Why didn’t it affect me?
They replied you respect it and promised to guard it and never let it leave the island therefore why should it distrust you?
Many Cook Islanders believe in ghosts but there have been no reports of visitations in the museum. However, the library and museum building is close to Avarua school where the adze was discovered and it is certainly a valued - and respected - artefact.

17 March 2010

Mu’umu’u magic

In August 2009 the museum held an exhibition of mu’umu’u. Curator/coordinator Jean Tekura Mason here describes the flowing dresses much-loved by local women.

Friends and supporters of the Library and Museum Society; most of the women volunteer every Wednesday.This long, voluminous gown with long sleeves and a high neck was introduced by missionaries to the Pacific, who insisted that their converts cover their bodies in the tradition of their home country. It is probable this garment has been worn by local women since the arrival of missionaries on Rarotonga in 1823.
The word mu’umu’u comes from the Hawaiian word muku for “cut off”, although the word mu’umu’u in Hawaii applies only to the shorter, simpler version of the garment (holoku being the earlier, longer version).
In the Cook Islands, the term mu’umu’u applies to all forms of the garment. Variations of the mu’umu’u appear in other countries of the Pacific, including Tahiti, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia.
Based possibly on the nightdress worn by European women, or the loose dresses of rural women in the United Kingdom (some dresses may have arrived here in shipments of second-hand clothing), this garment has evolved from a plain, modest gown, with simple yoke, to one more elaborately adorned, and is now favoured by local women for special occasions, although the shorter version of the garment can be worn anytime.
The garment was designed to suit local conditions, where heavy fabrics, crinolines and corsets, which were fashionable at the time in Europe, would prove constricting and uncomfortable in our hotter climate. In the absence of underclothing, local women always wore a pareu beneath the mu’umu’u. (Pareu in this context is a one-and-a-half metre strip of fabric wrapped around the body (sarong). It is also the name given to the light weave cotton fabric used in making mu'umu'u).

This photograph from the 1890s was possibly taken by George Crummer.
It is part of the arhival collection of CILAMS.

Traditionally, mu’umu’u were made from muslin or calico, the earliest cotton fabrics to arrive to the Cook Islands (clothing in pre-contact times was made from tapa – paper mulberry, bark cloth). By the 1840s, cotton gins set up on Rarotonga by missionaries were producing fabrics both for export and for local use.
Mu’umu’u is characterised by its loose-fitting, flowing style and is often adorned with frills and lace. Until recently the most commonly used fabric in mu’umu’u was the versatile Chinese-made pareu fabric (a floral-printed, light-weave cotton originally made in the French Congo for French colonies). Pareu is used in everything from bedcovers to other soft furnishings and clothing.
Mu’umu’u of the past 50 years were characterised by a predominance of floral fabric in the garment.
Today, with an abundance of other fabrics readily available, many types are used in the garment’s construction. The emphasis now is on the use of plain fabrics, spliced with a smaller amount of floral-printed fabric. And where once the mu’umu’u was considered a dress for older women only, young women today wear a modernised version, which is shorter and more tight fitting.

10 March 2010

Baxter goes to the Cook Islands

An original George Baxter print, Te Po chief of Rarotonga, was donated to the Library and Museum Society in 2008 by Ernie Ryder (of Tauranga, NZ), on behalf of his Cook Islands born son, Nicholas (formerly Taereau Tuakanangaro).
Ernie was in the library on a visit to Rarotonga and spotted a photocopy of the print. He managed to trace an authentic Baxter print (through the New Baxter Society) and presented it to us.
George Baxter (1804-1867) was an English artist and printer who is credited with the invention of commercially viable colour printing. His method involved using a metal plate (to print a black outline, shading and details) and up to twenty different blocks for each of the other colours needed. His work was used for prints and book illustrations but although it was popular and technically excellent he was such a perfectionist that the business was never profitable.

Baxter began his affiliation with the missionary societies in 1837.
"In the nineteenth century missionary societies were very active and wealthy enough to finance expeditions to all parts of the world. The reports of their activities were eagerly followed and famous missionaries achieved the status and hero worship afforded to film stars today... (T)he societies were able to follow up the interest aroused by the exploits of their famous men with his (Baxter's) coloured prints, which were a novelty since photography was not then in use." (George Baxter and the Baxter Prints)
During his Missionary Prints Period (1837 to 1847) Baxter produced what are considered to be his finest and most serious work as an artist and colour printer. John Williams, the representative of the London Missionary Society who brought Christianity to the Cook Islands in 1821, went back to England in 1834 to supervise the printing of the New Testament in Rarotongan. George Baxter knew Williams personally, and painted him while he was in England.
At that time Williams also published a "Narrative of Missionary Enterprises in the South Sea Islands”.
The colour picture of Te Po appears at the front of this book and is now famous because it is the best rendition of a Cook Islands tattoo of that time. It was based on an original drawing by John Williams. The pose is a typical one but the only really clear parts of the tattoo are the turtle motifs on his knees - as a food item turtles were reserved for chiefs. (The library has a later edition of the book which does not have the Te Po picture).
The picture is titled Te po a chief of Rarotonga but it is more correct to call him Pa Te Pou Ariki (Takitumu vaka, Rarotonga). The Journal of the Polynesian Society says he is the 43rd Pa Ariki of the Takitumu tribe and was chief when the Gospel was introduced into Rarotonga. He died 1855 and was succeeded by his daughter Pa Upoko Takau Ariki.

04 March 2010

“Cook Islanders were vaka voyaging in modern times”

The Mauke vaka "Maire Nui" in 1992. Photo: Ewan Smith

“Faery Lands of the South Seas” is one of the many books in our collection by the famous writing partners, James Norman Hall & Charles B Nordhoff, both of whom lived in Tahiti. The book was serialised in Harpers Magazine in 1920-21 then published in book form (Harper and Brothers, USA, 1921).
One passage in the book describes a double-hulled canoe on Mauke.

We were strolling up the path between the canoe houses when Riley stopped me. “Come and have a look,” he said; “this is the only island I know of where
you can see an old-fashioned double canoe.”
There were two of them in the shed we entered under a roof of battered galvanized iron – long, graceful hulls fashioned from the trunks of trees, joined in pairs by timbers of ironwood laid across the gunwales and lashed down with sinnet. They were beautifully finished – scraped smooth and decorated with carving. In these craft, my companion told me, the men of Mauke still voyage to Atiu and Mitiaro, as they had done for generations before Cook sailed through the group.

In 1992 vaka building and voyaging experienced a resurgence in the Cook Islands when the country hosted the sixth Festival of Pacific Arts. Many southern group islands built vaka and sailed them to Rarotonga for the opening of the festival in October 1992.
The Mauke canoe, Maire Nui, is pictured above under sail in an atmospheric photograph by Ewan Smith.
On its 240km journey from Mauke it broke a boom, which halved the speed of travel to about 4 knots, but the boat arrived safely with a happy though exhausted crew.
After the festival the Maire Nui languished in a tin shed at the old Kia Orana food factory until the government property corporation decided it needed the shed for other purposes. The vaka, by now somewhat dilapidated, was moved outside.

The Mauke vaka "Maire Nui" in 2005.

The library and Mr T (Ti Pekepo) wanted to build a lean-to in the library’s garden area and teach local youth to renovate and then sail the boat, but no funding was available. Maire Nui was relocated to Mr T’s property where he works on it when he has time.
The tin shed is still standing although the Kia Orana factory has now been demolished.